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Retailers, it's really none of your business so back off


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 5, 2003

For retailers who are looking for some insights to take out of the recent abysmal Christmas shopping season, here is a hint from someone who is growing increasingly impatient with the faux familiarity of the shopping experience. There is one thing I want more than anything these days from sales help: a respectful distance.

I know I sound like an old-school-marm-party-pooping prude but just because I've handed my credit card with my named embossed on it to a cashier doesn't mean we are on a first-name basis. I don't want to hear "have a nice day, Robyn" at the end of the transaction. This does not endear me to the store. The false intimacy only makes me feel doubly uncomfortable. First by making me feel oddly disrespected, and then, by making me embarrassed by my priggishness.

And retailers, don't think this can be cured by using my surname along with the proper title. Your staff doesn't know if I'm Mrs., Ms. or Miss Blumner, since none of those designations is on the credit card. Moreover -- and this is experience talking -- your employee is going to butcher my name's pronunciation, and while fumbling, look to me for guidance -- not a positive shopping moment for either of us.

Really, all I want from that interaction is efficiency and as much anonymity as possible under the circumstances. Intellectually, I know I probably tried the garment on in a dressing room being "monitored" by someone watching me through a hidden camera; I know that additional cameras around the store probably caught me picking up items and lingering over others in order to both prevent theft and evaluate the kinds of displays and merchandise attractive to consumers of my gender and age; and I know that by using my credit card, this purchase has now been tagged to me for time immemorial and I will appear in databases around the world as someone who prefers deeply discounted Dana Buchanan jackets in winter white. But I want to maintain the illusion of an arms-length deal and to do that the retail associate ringing up the sale shouldn't approach me as though we go way back and how great it is that we bumped into each other here of all places.

And another thing, from what I've been able to tell, paying a commission to sales staff has racheted up the ersatz friendliness factor without commensurately bettering the quality of assistance. Days before Christmas, at the chain men's clothing store, Structure, I was pounced on by two clerks as soon as I passed the threshold. But when I asked for a certain color sweater, they offered nothing beyond: "Sorry, if it's not on the display we must be out." (News alert: a pained expression of sympathy for my predicament does not constitute "help.") Instead of offering to call other Structure stores to see about availability, one clerk tried to engage me in conversation about who the sweater was going to be a gift for -- as if getting to know me in a vapid, nosey five minute exchange would give her the edge over the other clerk competing for my sales.

Supermarkets, too, have started to cross that line between being professionally polite and intrusively chatty. Please don't comment about my purchases or ask me "when's the party" if I'm buying more than two bottles of wine. More likely than not, the wine is for the personal consumption of me and my husband and is not associated with any blowout or shindig we are planning. The question always provokes an instant calculation in my brain. Do I explain that there is no party and let "Tiffany" be left with the impression that I'm a wine-guzzling drunk or do I simply lie? My head wants to tell her indignantly that she's asked a meddlesome question, but my mouth typically takes the path of least resistance and says "next weekend," along with a forced smile.

Radio Shack has finally gotten the message and stopped giving customers the third degree as they check out. But there are still plenty of stores that want your phone number or ZIP code before ringing up your purchases. Corporate managers don't seem to understand that those questions, no matter how benign, make some of us uneasy. In providing the information, we feel we've given away something private about ourselves, and if we refuse to cooperate, a negativity washes over the entire transaction. Either way we walk away feeling bad.

The only retail bright spot this holiday season was in online sales. Shopping by computer may be, in fact, the least private way to go, but it has precisely the opposite feel. So retailers, how about promoting this promise for the next holiday season: Shop with us, we won't make it personal.

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